Library History

From the desk of Eileen Pech, March 2010:

Before there was a City of Berwyn, there was a Berwyn Library.

In 1894, the leading women of Berwyn met in the home of Dr. Arthur MacNeal, the founder of MacNeal Hospital, to organize a small lending library. They agreed to circulate books out of the home of Charles E. Piper, co-founder of Berwyn, but by 1901, when Berwyn residents voted to separate from Cicero and form a township of their own, the library already had outgrown its home base.

Relocated to Francis Lackey’s dry goods store on the southwest corner of what are now Windsor and Grove Avenues, the library’s increasing popularity soon spelled its demise. Circulation outgrew Mr. Lackey’s available time and space; the books were turned over to Emerson School, and the library went into hiatus.

In 1922, the Berwyn Woman’s Club organized a library for children that soon re-ignited adult interest in reading. The Woman’s Club spearheaded a petition drive for a tax-supported public library, and on November 18, 1924 the Berwyn City Council established a “Public Library and Reading Room” to be governed by a nine-member board appointed by the mayor.

By November 1925, the library board had mustered a $500 loan to rent space and operate a library in the Berwyn Club Building at 33rd Street and Oak Park Avenue. Twelve more rental locations and one public space in Berwyn City Hall would follow before voters in 1960 approved construction of branch libraries at 3400 Oak Park Avenue and 6420 W.16th Street. Later referendums to build a single, central facility failed to gain voter approval, and in 1996, the library settled into its present quarters at 2701 S. Harlem Avenue, the former CSA Fraternal Life building purchased and retooled for library use by the City of Berwyn.

The first of the library’s eight directors was Margaret Ely, hired in 1926 to preside over a collection of 4,000 books. The seven directors who followed would increase the library’s holdings to more than 250,000 volumes; include new formats such as books on tape and movies on DVD; and embrace modern technologies from cassettes to computers to the internet. All seven directors would strive to move the library forward in the face of recurrent financial and political challenges. But none would ever again witness the passionate community interest in the library that brought 400 residents to City Hall in 1931 to protest perceived “political interference” in library operations. Nor to date has any director matched Miss Ely’s unparalleled 31 years of library service.

 
The complete “History of the Berwyn Public Library,” written by Eileen Pech, is available here in pdf format.  Print versions may be checked out from the Local History collection in the Berwyn Library's Reference Department.